This is an excerpt from chapter 16 of The School of Christ, "Kneel at the Cross":
The expectation of the cross is a constant burden on Jesus. He vividly describes his inner turmoil: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”(Luke 12:49-50). As the time approaches, he muses aloud: “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name”(John 12:27-28). Jesus is troubled, yet determined.
The night he is arrested, he takes Peter, James, and John with him, and “began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’”(Mark 14:33-34). The cross is so daunting to Jesus that he must pray—and pray with his closest friends. “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’”(Mark 14:36). Jesus wrestles in prayer, longing for a way to escape this fate. He knows what God can do and asks him to find another way to accomplish his will. Yet ultimately Jesus submits himself to his Father, and says bluntly to Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”(John 19:11). Hard as it is, Jesus perseveres and is ready to suffer for the Father’s will.
As we kneel at the cross, we watch Jesus suffer so much. We watch him—bleeding everywhere, stripped of clothing, humiliated and shamed by all. We know that he is innocent. We know that he holds the power to end this charade forever. We know that he is suffering for the very people who thoughtlessly mock him. We cannot help but sit in wonder at such fierce determination to finish the great work God has planned from the foundation of the world.
But the turn from the cross to my own life is disheartening. I do not see such determination in myself about anything—except perhaps my desire to do what I want. I am notorious for unfinished projects, well-meaning conversations, and good ideas that come to nothing. Jesus teaches me that there are a few things worth doing very, very well—with all of my being. He shows me that I need reliance on God and his will to accomplish them. He shows me that I must learn the discipline and patience I need in every area of my life—in my family, my stewardship, my Bible study, my speech. But most of all, I must follow the example of the cross in following Christ through hardship and pain.
The Hebrew writer gives a clue as to how Jesus achieves such determination. “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God”(Heb 12:2). By keeping his mind on the “joy that was set before him,” Jesus finds strength to endure the cross. If we want the prize bad enough, we summon the necessary determination to win it. But notice that Jesus’ focus is consistently on the glory he will bring to God, not the suffering he is currently enduring. Likewise I must maintain focus on the blessings of determination: spiritual growth, healthy relationships, integrity, and ultimately eternal life with my God. This is the “joy that is set before me” that emboldens me to endure my minor obstacles in hope of future glory. As I kneel at the cross, I grow more determined.
“Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver”(Matt 26:14-15).
Judas wants to betray Jesus and approaches the chief priests. What will you give me? Judas names his price and sells out his faith for thirty pieces of silver.
This is just the tragic final act of a long slide Judas has been in. Judas has a money problem. He “was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it”(John 12:6). Despite all Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of money, Judas’ problem seems to only get worse. So when this critical moment comes, his weakness becomes his downfall.
But this story creates some self-reflection. What would it take for me to sell out my faith? What is my price? Is it some sexual pleasure, too appealing to resist? Is it the praise and respect of my fellow-man, a small piece of fame? Is it the intoxicating freedom of money—so much that I wouldn’t have to worry about money anymore? Is it my desire to be connected to my family that I just couldn’t turn away from, even for Jesus? Is it a sensual pleasure—the release alcohol brings, the pursuit of fun, the joy of the rowdy lifestyle?
This kind of thinking is not just an exercise in pessimism. If we answer honestly, we can find the battle plan Satan will use—probably is using—to trip us up. What is my thirty pieces of silver?
“Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”(Mark 5:19).
An amazing thing has happened to this man. He has been so demon-infested that he lived away from people in the tombs, breaking the chains used to restrain him, and cutting himself on stones. Yet Jesus has come, ordered the demons out of him (and into a herd of pigs), and left the man sitting clothed and in his right mind. The man wants to come with Jesus, but Jesus refuses. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”(Mark 5:19). There is a story to tell and the people who need to hear it most are the people who know him well.
Many of the people who surround Jesus have a story to tell. He casts seven demons out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2). He tells the woman at the well “all that I ever did”(John 4:29) and changes her life in one interaction. Nathanael is convinced when a chance encounter with Jesus reveals that Jesus knows both his character (“no deceit”) and what he has been doing (“under the fig tree”, John 1:47-50). Some leave their jobs to follow Jesus. Some weep over him when he declares their sins forgiven. Their lives are forever changed. Every disciple of Jesus has a story to tell.
Certainly all disciples have some elements in our stories that are the same. We all put our faith in Jesus and are baptized into Christ (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 2:36-41, Gal 3:26-27). But we all come to faith differently. Each of us has his or her own story. And Jesus’ words to the freed demoniac—“tell them how much the Lord has done for you”—shows the power of that story in bringing others to pay attention to God and the work he is doing.
So what’s your story? In what unique ways has the gospel affected you? What has led you to follow Jesus? What events in your life—what parts of your story—show just “how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you”? To be sure, these stories must be supplemented by clear teaching from Scripture about Jesus and God’s purposes. But speaking plainly about what led us to him helps make the Scripture come to life for others.
My story is the story of a young man who grew up in a Christian home and longed to please those around him. I wanted approval and respect—and saw Jesus’ teachings as a way to gain them. Meanwhile the parts of my life that were sinful—my pride, my lust, my greed—had to be hidden lest I lose accolades. Jesus put up with this pattern for a long time—my two selves—until he saw fit to break me. This came through special people who had the guts to call me on my sins and hold my feet to the fire. Through their intervention, he has forgiven me of my wickedness and dishonesty—though deeply ingrained—and has led me toward healing and transformation. Not one area of my life—from my thoughts to my preaching to my marriage to my anger and lust—has been unaffected. I have been redeemed. I see with clarity and know the joy and peace of his forgiveness. Now I love to tell other people about him. He has reached me—and he can do the same for you! There is good news for all of us!
What’s your story?
John the Baptist was a believer in Jesus before it was cool. His preaching had focused on “he who comes after me”(John 1:27) who would be greater. After Jesus approaches him to be baptized, John acknowledges that Jesus is the one he spoke of—the “Lamb of God”—and directs his disciples to become Jesus’ disciples (John 1:29-37).
This is why it is so surprising to find John doubting Jesus. “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”(Matt 11:2-3). I have heard some Christians argue that John is not really doubting, but is asking on behalf of his disciples. Yet there is nothing in the text to indicate that. It appears to be a legitimate expression of John’s doubt: ”Are you the one who is to come?”. This situation is not playing out in the way John expected.
What do we do when we are in John’s position? How do we respond when our certainty turns to doubt?
Retreat to what you know. Jesus does not give John statements of reassurance. He tells John’s disciples to report “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them”(Matt 11:4-5). John knows the prophecies of the Messiah—particularly in Isaiah—that speak of this kind of empowerment to heal and bless the needy. When we begin to doubt, there is comfort in returning to the bedrock of our faith and knowing that some things are certain.
Acknowledge your circumstances. In hard moments, our faith can be challenged. John is in prison because he has confronted Herod about taking his brother’s wife. It is extremely difficult to do the right thing and then suffer for it. Circumstances like these can lead us to wonder if we’ve gotten something wrong. It is important that we see the impact this has on our faith.
Reconsider your expectations. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”(Matt 11:3). If you are the Messiah, why am I in prison? When are we going to get this “kingdom of God” thing going? Are you the guy or not? Jesus is precisely fulfilling God’s expectations, but not John’s. This happens to us when we become frustrated that God won’t prove himself, speak to us directly, or solve all the world’s problems. Is it a problem with God—or with our expectations?
Just hang on. Jesus’ final word to John is “blessed is the one who is not offended by me”(Matt 11:6). I see this last statement as directed at John. Throughout the gospels, people regularly find reasons to be offended by Jesus and his teaching. They walk away. Yet there is a blessing here for those who refuse to leave Jesus in their moments of doubt. What we don’t understand—or are unsure of--now may look different when we have more information, different circumstances, or a little more time under our belt.
Sometimes certainty turns to doubt. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, “some doubted”(Matt 28:17). Yet when we move forward anyway, we often find deeper blessing.